By Sam Page and Adam Dennett, University College London
Brewing is all the rage again. BrewDog, one of the largest new British brewers and self-styled ‘Punks’ of the industry, are starting to try and sink their teeth into the US market, and have even published a book on how to do business. Beer is now cool, interesting, and something that many are starting to cotton on to. Indeed, it’s difficult to walk into a pub in the UK these days without being confronted by at least one ‘craft’ drink, speculatively in the form of craft pale ale or a craft larger. It would seem that, after a long decline – where the number of brewers plunged to just 87 in the mid-1970s, down from 2000 in the mid-1920s – British beer manufacturing is thriving. Indeed, the Society of Independent Brewers have reported that brewing from their members almost doubled from 2009 to 2014. And while not exclusive to London, there has been a significant rise in the capital: from a handful of breweries within the M24 prior 2009, to 84 active breweries in 2016.
In many ways – physically and metaphysically – space and place have always been important in brewing. But, while terroir (perhaps most simply thought of as the impact of geography on the character of food and drink) has become less important as ingredients now come from all over the world (a lot the hops from of those very high-note bitter IPA’s are ‘New World Hops’, from the US or New Zealand), provenance and identity remain crucial to brewing – London being no exception. To take one example, the importance of location is evident for The Brixton Brewery, naming their beer after local roads: Electric IPA (Electric Avenue), Coldharbour Lager (Coldharbour Lane) and Atlantic APA (Atlantic Road). Other location-based themes are available in abundance: Five Points (brewery), Gipsy Hill (brewery), London Pride (beer), and so on. And so, in our paper for The Geographical Journal, we were keen to explore the role that geography plays in the emerging London brewing scene.
Carrying out some initial spatial analysis, we discovered that London brewers are not randomly distributed over the city in an ad hoc manner. Instead, there is evidence of clustering, particularly in the inner boroughs of Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Islington, Hackney and Lambeth. To try and find out why this would be so, we went down to Southwark (as a particularly strong cluster) to carry out some ‘field work’ and not at all to drink beer.
In the north of Southwark, just near the River Thames, is what has become known as the “Bermondsey Beer Mile” (rather erroneously, as it’s almost exactly two miles long between London Bridge Station, beginning with Southwark Brewing Company and ending with Fourpure near South Bermondsey Station). Most of the breweries along the beer mile run ‘tap rooms’ at the weekend. This is a phenomenon where they open their doors, clear away some of the brewing equipment, set up trestle tables and benches and invite the public in to sample and buy beers directly from them. This has helped to turn the Bermondsey Beer Mile into something of a honey-pot for tourists, beer aficionados and other wastrels (including academic geographers) for the last few years.
During the course of our brewing fieldtrip ‘research’ we found several factors that helped Southwark, and in particular Bermondsey, become a new hub for brewing in the city. First were the presence of many brick railway arches supporting the railways running out of London Bridge Station. All of the Bermondsey breweries were under them. Indeed, within London almost 30 breweries are situated under railway arches. Railways have a historic association with brewing in the UK (through transporting products), but this is the first time in history we could locate that they helped form the space within which the brewing process took place. These arches are imposing Victorian brick structures more commonly the home of minicab firms and car garages. Traditionally damp, dingy and noisy, many been refurbished in the last few years and have started to provide spaces where now coffee is roasted, bread is baked, beef is salted and beer is brewed (if you know where to look). The refurbishment and opening up the use of these arches has been a conscious plan from the owner, Network Rail, to foster new businesses, but the crucial factor is that (for now) they are relatively cheap to rent and this has allowed relatively low-rent generating industries to penetrate the centre of London where access to some markets is greatly improved.
But the availability of suitable physical space has not spawned similar clusters everywhere in the city. More must have been going on to encourage these breweries to set up near each other. Talking informally with some of the brewers, we discovered that they were actually something of a community and were operating a sort of ‘economies of cooperation’ were they were benefiting through being beer comrades rather than business rivals. An indicative anecdotal story is that Kernel (the first of the new breweries in the area), not only helped to teach the brewers at Anspach & Hobday, how to brew, but they gave the Partisan brewery their original brewing equipment in order that they could get started. Anspach & Hobday also shared their equipment, until recently with the Bullfinch brewery. Through sharing knowledge, equipment, and customers, the breweries in Bermondsey were able to thrive.
So we could see how and why breweries were beginning to cluster in space in Bermondsey, but this new wave of brewing only began after 2011. Why the sudden growth at this time? Laying the important groundwork was the unlikely figure of Gordon Brown, who when Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2002, introduced a progressive beer tax meaning that small volume breweries benefited from a significant tax break such that they could compete with the economies of scale which benefited the big players in the industry. However, this had no immediate effect. It is only after the 2008 global financial crash that we start to witness the growth in the number of breweries, so that by the start of 2011, there were 24 breweries (including Kernel), reaching a high point (thus far) in 2015 with 87 active breweries. Anecdotally, there has been suggestion that the financial crash led a number of people to re-evaluate their career choices (either voluntarily or involuntarily) and, for some, a career in brewing beckoned.
About the authors: Sam Page is doctoral student at the Department of Geography, University of College London. Adam Dennett is Lecturer in Urban Analytics at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London.
Dennett, A. and Page, S. (2017), The geography of London’s recent beer brewing revolution. The Geographical Journal. doi:10.1111/geoj.12228
Scott K 2017 Scotland’s craft beer punks are bringing their brews to America CNN Money http://money.cnn.com/2017/05/03/smallbusiness/brewdog-craft-beer-america-ohio/index.html